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Men's gymnastics: how John Orozco shrugged off Olympic-size insecurities

John Orozco, a key piece of the US men's gymnastics team competing at the Olympics Monday, was bullied as a kid. He's not the only Olympian who had to conquer insecurities to get to London.  

By Staff writer / July 30, 2012

John Orozco of the US competes in the rings event during the men's gymnastics qualification in the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games Saturday.

Dylan Martinez/REUTERS

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American gymnast John Orozco is the image of the Olympic ideal. Kind, cheerful, talented, and bound in so much pure muscle that he could punch a hole through the springboard, Orozco is a young man made to be on a Wheaties box.

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But growing up in the Bronx, he stuck out in a different way. He was the "gymnast kid" getting bullied.

America's male gymnasts are the figure skaters of the summer Games – each inconceivable hold on the rings or flip on the high bar a protest against the lingering perception that they are competing in a girl's sport. For a young Orozco, however, every day at school was a battle, too.

"All the kids would tease me, and when it started off, I was pretty down about it," he said at a media summit in May. "When I walked into school, they would say, 'There's the gymnast kid who walks around in tights.' "

Heading into Monday's men's team event at the London Olympics, Orozco says those days are long behind him. He is, he says, someone who can "let all the hateful things people say go right through me." 

For some of the men and women at the London Games, that is a surprisingly necessary skill. Even in an athlete's village teeming with bodies seemingly honed to Olympic perfection, insecurities abound. From the British swimmer who had to quit Twitter after so many hurtful comments about her appearance to the US weightlifting "girly girl" who – as a high school football player – was thought of as an "abomination," Olympians are not immune from bullying words and outrageous body-image expectations. And overcoming them can simply become another challenge on their Olympic journey.

For Orozco, overcoming the bullying was a question of patience and passion. From the first moment he entered a gym at age 9, he knew he was home. Even from the hallway of the gym, the "smack of the mat and the squeal of the bar" set his pulse racing. When he stepped on the mat, he immediately started doing cartwheels.

The coach walked in, bemused. "You have to stretch first," Orozco recalled him saying. 

When Orozco got home, he was still practicing his handstands. 

This singleminded focus – and the success that eventually followed – had a powerful impact on his schoolmates. "The kids started to get what was going on," he said. Those who had teased him were now saying, "There's John Orozco. He's going to the Olympics. I want to sit next to him."

At the media summit, a wry smile passes his lips as he leans back in his chair, so evidently satisfied with how far he has come. The possibility of this moment meant too much to the kid doing handstands in this living room. "When they started off making fun of me, I didn't care," he said. "I wasn't going to let them take that way from me."

"If you keep that in you, it will destroy you," he added.

Two-time Olympic champion freestyle swimmer Rebecca Adlington of Britain has admitted as much. In a May interview with the British newspaper the Guardian, she confessed that she could no longer read Twitter or the comments below articles about her.

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